There has been a spate of crimes against Dalits across India, including in Uttar Pradesh, where technically there is a party that should be able to mobilise and agitate against this. On July 20, a Dalit woman died of a uterus infection at a village in Etawah district. Media reports that as her family was about to begin the last rites, members of the Thakur community intervened and said a low-caste woman could not be cremated at a place meant for the high castes. The woman’s minor son was about to light the pyre when the family had to stop and after a six-hour standoff, they had to shift to a crematorium meant for Dalits.
In the old days, when there was fire in her belly, Mayawati, one of the figures who transformed the political landscape of North India, would have protested and perhaps even gheraoed the elected representatives and administration. This time round, she would tweet, saying that the incident was shameful and there must be a high-level probe and strict action. She is, incidentally, operating in a state where the SC/ST Commission, that receives complaints of atrocities, has been headless for over seven months.
The politics of assertion and agitation appear to have hollowed out and the BSP now seems content with transactional politics that involves bartering her vote shares for alliances or making overt or covert deals that give her maximum protection in cases she faces over corruption charges. The traditional opinion is that with cases over her head, Mayawati, who has served four separate terms as the UP CM — the last between 2007 and 2012 — is no longer able to fight in any meaningful way. One sign of the apathy is that right through the months of lockdown and reverse migration, her party structures hardly did any relief work while she herself operated from home, summoning news agencies when she wished to make any statement.
Her last few political moves have merely involved traditional electoral arithmetic and the expectation of vote bank transfers. These days, she takes positions that are to the advantage of the BJP, most recently over her six MLAs in Rajasthan joining CM Ashok Gehlot, faced with a split in his party amid backroom manouevres from the BJP that would like to bring down the Congress regime in the state. Mayawati has asked Gehlot to resign and there are now legal questions over the six MLAs moving en masse to another party. Mayawati is no ordinary figure. She has been the metaphor for Dalit power. But the last few years have not been good for her. Her attempt at a grand alliance with the SP failed in the last General Election and since 2014, there has been an erosion of her Dalit vote, with a section going over to the BJP.
There is, however, a particular poignancy in seeing Mayawati so helpless before the UP regime led by a priest belonging to the Thakur community. For, Mayawati in power was known for strong assertion against what is referred to as Thakurvaad. Thakurs claim to make up 7.5 per cent of the electorate in the state but have traditionally punched above their weight, owning land and deploying muscle power. Dalits make up 21 per cent of the population, yet in the year 2020, they can be thrown out of a cremation ground in a state that had the nation’s first SC woman CM. Mayawati’s reign is remembered for her actions against traditional Thakur strongmen and politicians. She jailed many including the infamous Raja Bhaiya of Pratapgarh. At the time when she did so, her actions would win support both from Dalits who were being oppressed and Brahmins who constitute about 10 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s population and at that time resented Thakur assertion and the breakdown in law and order.
But today, in the face of the apparent hegemony of the BJP in UP, does Mayawati and the BSP have a hand left to play? After the recent killing of ‘Brahmin don’ Vikas Dubey, allegedly in a fake encounter, there have been murmurs that somehow Thakur criminal figures or politicians do not meet the same fate. There has, therefore, been speculation that Brahmins could be smarting under the Thakur domination visible in the Yogi Adityanath regime. The focus on the Ram Mandir is designed to satiate some Brahmin sentiments at a time when they have no other viable alternatives.
The Congress that lost its ascendancy in the late 1980s was a party led by Brahmins and their natural home before Mandal and Mandir politics changed equations in the Hindi heartland. Strategically, if one were to take a long-term view of politics in UP that has elections in early 2022, one could speculate that the only alliance that could take on the BJP is a possible BSP-Congress compact. Mayawati would bring her Dalit block along with the hope that Brahmins would be comfortable with both her and the Congress. The first choice of the Muslim community has been the SP, but they would head to the strategically stronger alliance. But these are just theories and the reality is that the Congress that claims Priyanka Gandhi will lead their campaign has yet to get off and has no assured caste/community voter bloc. Both players have hands tied behind their back as it’s not just Mayawati alone who faces charges, so does Priyanka’s husband Robert Vadra.
Mayawati’s politics once drew from a valid historical sense of injustice. BSP founder Kanshi Ram was a strategic genius who built up the party along with Mayawati, known for her formidable fighting abilities. The BSP, founded in 1984, was based on the politics of ‘assertion’ and demand for rights. Conversely, the RSS-BJP project works on the principle of ‘assimilation’ as opposed to assertion.
The Kanshi Ram view once was that only Dalits can speak for themselves and non-Dalit intermediaries were only playing a trick to assert the hegemony of caste. The Hindutva project fundamentally does not challenge caste structures, but reinforces them. The reach-out is not through an assertion of rights, but welfare measures and cadre outreach that point out the benefits of voting for those who appear to be winning. As the BJP makes incremental gains, Mayawati could find that unless she engineers a grand disruption, she could remain a waning force. She hollowed out the politics with too many deals and arrangements and could ironically and tragically be ‘assimilated’.
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